Did Trump Attack Assad to End the Russian Collusion Story?

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Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, at Manhattan’s Trump Tower on August 17, 2016. Maxim Trudolyubov writes that given the emotionally charged nature of the deadly gas attack in Syria, a failure to respond by Trump would have been immediately portrayed as a confirmation of his collusion with the Kremlin. The Russia story threatened to overshadow all policy initiatives the Trump team was pushing for, Trudolyubov says, and putting an end to the story was clearly one of the president’s major priorities. Carlo Allegri/reuters

This article first appeared on the Kennan Institute site.

Tomahawk missiles fired late Thursday by the U.S. Navy at a Syrian air base have put an end to the entire setup of the Russian-American relations of the Obama years. The U.S. has effectively turned the page on its de facto absence from the Syrian conflict and Russia’s stint as the only major world power willing to use force in the region.

The change promises to be unfavorable for both the U.S. and Russia. Both countries’ political leaders have their reasons to stay on course with their conflicting views of the situation in the region. A political dynamic may form that would make both the White House and the Kremlin escalate their involvement in the conflict zone, almost against their will.

Russia’s first official reaction to the predawn strike was to condemn it as “an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” President Donald Trump ordered the strikes under a “far-fetched pretext,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement.

Related: Putin is poised to take advantage of Trump’s retreat from the world

Russia also said it would suspend de-confliction agreements, a military-to-military coordination system that prevents both countries’ warplanes from coming into collision over the conflict zone. This is puzzling, because it is due to such an agreement that the Russian military was notified about the Thursday strikes.

It is highly unlikely that Putin would decide to back down from standing behind Syria’s embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad, despite the spiraling costs of such support. The Russian military will now take steps to strengthen Syrian air defenses to help “protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities,” Major General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said on Friday.

Even a few days ago, the Kremlin was not anticipating direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. In fact, it is still unclear whether the U.S. strikes on Thursday represent a fundamental policy shift toward Syria. Many commentators see the attack as a one-off, an almost inevitable response to the Syrian regime’s use of banned chemical weapons against civilians.

“Such a one-off strike is unlikely to be militarily decisive, even if it has made a real dent in the Assad regime’s air power advantage,” Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, wrote on his blog early on Friday.

The U.S. has hardly been consistent in its Syria policy. Trump went from a refusal to pursue an ouster of Assad to a military strike against him in the space of just one week.

About a week ago, during his trip to Turkey, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed the Russian policy line in saying that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” In fact, if there ever was a Trump position on Syria, it was about staying out of the fight against the Assad regime and concentrating on destroying the Islamic State group (ISIS) instead.

Related: Putin has made gains from the turmoil he has caused Trump

A gas attack on Tuesday against the city of Idlib appeared to have changed Trump’s disposition toward Assad. “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said in an emotional statement on Wednesday.

It is highly unlikely that the reasons for Trump’s about-face on Syria were solely emotional. Too many factors precluded him from sticking to the original stay-out mantra. Too many important Republicans derided President Barack Obama for his inaction on Syria back in 2013.

The paradox of highly partisan politics is that although Trump himself was against military strikes in 2013, his inaction in 2017 would have cost him dearly.

“One day we’re bombing Libya and getting rid of a dictator to foster democracy for civilians, the next day we are watching the same civilians suffer while that country falls apart,” Trump said in April 2016. “We’re a humanitarian nation. But the legacy of the Obama [and former Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray.”

If Trump followed his own tune on Syria, he would have been compared to Obama. A significant portion of his current political base would have aligned with many Democrats in accusing the president of betraying weakness in the face of a murderous tyrant.

And not just a murderous tyrant but his cunning backer in Moscow. The Trump administration’s developing Russia problem would have made it practically impossible for the president to keep clear of Syria. Given the highly publicized and emotionally charged nature of the deadly gas attack, a failure to respond would have been immediately portrayed as a confirmation of Trump’s collusion with the Kremlin.

The administration’s Russia story threatened to overshadow all policy initiatives the Trump team was pushing for. Putting an end to the story was clearly one of the major priorities of the U.S. administration.

Last but not least, Trump’s approval rating hit 36 percent last week, the lowest of any recorded president in his first year in office. As any Russian observer would confirm, we in Russia are tired of watching the Kremlin’s obsession with the president’s approval rates.

If public support is seen as crucial, leaders of a certain type would do anything to prop it up. Both Trump and Putin seem to be that type of leader. For years, Putin has used foreign policy to bolster his domestic ratings. These days, both countries’ foreign policies risk being driven by domestic concerns.

A dynamic may be established between the United States and Russia that would push both countries in the direction of further escalation. Both America and Russia are ruled by self-proclaimed pragmatists, but both of these supposed pragmatists have proved to be extremely thin-skinned and sensitive to being portrayed as weak. This is an ancient path toward conflict.

Every sensible leader of the international community has a responsibility to help the two countries return to dialogue.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and editor at large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.